During Villanova’s national championship run in 2018, and especially this season on a team gutted by the last June’s NBA Draft, senior forward Eric Paschall has become a go-to guy. As a defender.
“Many times in the huddle, late in games, we’ll say ‘E, this guy’s got it going on. You’ve got to get him,’ ” says Villanova assistant coach Kyle Neptune. “Coach [Jay Wright] always wants Eric to check the other team’s hot hand. It doesn’t even matter what position it is.”
Some question whether Paschall -- whose name has been turning up in the first round of some mock NBA Drafts -- can be that effective a defender at the next level. The men who have coached him the last four years, counting a valuable redshirt season after Paschall transferred from Fordham in 2015, scoff at the naysayers.
“It’s preposterous,” Neptune says. “We’ve had elite defenders here -- Josh Hart, Mikail Bridges ... Donte Divincenzio was a good defender -- but I’d put Eric with any of those guys. The NBA is so much more isolations and making plays. I think Eric would be very good defensively in the NBA, right away. I don’t think there would be any lag time.”
La Salle coach Ashley Howard, who served on Wright’s staff as the Wildcats won two national titles, has a more succinct answer when asked if he thinks Paschal can guard at the next level. “Ask Devonte Graham if he can’t guard,” Howard says.
The maturation of his career has been impressive to watch."
Villanova played Kansas in the Final Four last season, and Graham scored 23 points, meaning Wright had to dispatch Paschal to cool him off. The Wildcats eventually won 95-79.
Long before he played as a Fordham freshman in 2014, Paschall earned the reputation of a scorer. And he didn’t disappoint. The big man dropped 31 in his first college game, averaged 16 points and was voted the Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Year. But after his coach, Tom Pecora, was fired in March 2015, Paschall decided he didn’t want to stay around.
Villanova had called Paschall just days before he signed with Fordham, so it was a natural place to resurface. His choice was astute.
From the day he first stepped on campus -- weighing 268 pounds with 18 percent body fat -- Paschall went to work on his body under the watchful eye of John Shackleton, Villanova’s excellent strength and conditioning coach who’s also a nutritionist.
Paschall used his redshirt year of 2015-16 wisely. As he watched the Wildcats win their first national title under Wright, he was toning and strengthening his body. By the time he was eligible to play the next season, Paschall was a ripped 251 pounds with six percent body fat.
“I give coach Shack a lot of the credit,” Paschall says. “We lifted every day, he taught me how to eat right, and we worked on all the little things -- lunges, box step ups, drills to help you get good mobility throughout your body.”
Paschall was a complimentary player as a sophomore in 2016-17, averaging 7.2 points. He knew there was more work to be done, so in between working with Neptune on his defensive skills, Paschall cranked up perimeter shots by the hundreds. Last season, when the Wildcats won another national title, he was a key starter, averaged 10.6 points and shot 35.6 from beyond the arc and 81.3 from the free-throw line. A year earlier, his averages were 27.9 and 69.5.
Paschall derived just as much satisfaction becoming Villanova’s lockdown man.
“It’s fun taking on all [defensive] challenges,” Paschall said. “Against quickness, I try to slide and use my length [6-foot-11 wingspan] to keep them in front of me. With big guys, I chest them. I use my strength when they try to back me down and not let them get to the spot where the want to.”
The NBA Draft claimed three starters -- Bridges, point guard Jalen Brunson and post Omari Spellman -- and key reserve Divincenzo -- from that national championship team, leaving Paschall and fellow senior Phil Booth to carry on a proud tradition. The Wildcats began this season ranked in everyone’s Top 25, fell out after improbable losses to Furman and Penn -- which broke the Wildcats’ 25-game winning streak over Philadelphia Big Five competition -- and have spent the rest of the year battling back.
At 21-8 overall and 12-4 in the Big East, Villanova is poised to return to the NCAA tournament, thanks in large part to Booth and Paschall (16.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 36.8 from 3-point range).
“It’s been difficult with only two starters back,” Paschall says. “But when all those guys left [all four of Villanova’s Draft picks had eligibility remaining] we were happy for them. They got to follow their dreams. So Phil and I have had to do all the little things, and take over leadership roles to show the young guys what Villanova basketball is all about.”
Lately, Villanova basketball has been about winning championships and sending players to the NBA. Neptune and Howard think Paschall will be next in line.
“The maturation of his career has been impressive to watch,” Neptune says. “He started as a complete iso guy, just a volume shooter. He transitioned when he got here into more of a role player. You go your whole life, even the first part of college, being the guy, and now you have to learn to operate in a role. That’s not easy. Over his first couple years here he did a great job finding his spots in the offense.
“Then he goes back to being the guy after not doing it in a while. It’s another challenge, at the highest level of the game, being at the top of the scouting report. On top of that, when he’s locked in and he’s playing hard, no one in our program’s been a better defender in terms of staying in front of guys. I think he’s a plug-and-play guy in the NBA.”
“I think he’ll be better in the NBA than he is in college because it’s more of an open game,” Howard says. “Eric can shoot, he’s an NBA-caliber athlete, and he’s a guy that can defend, legitimately defend, multiple positions.
“I haven’t seen everybody in college basketball, but what guy other than [Duke freshman ] Zion Williamson has the size, the athletic skill and the explosiveness Eric does? He’s a ready-made NBA player.”
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